No mid-sized Chicago theater troupe puts on a period drama with the panache of Remy Bumppo. Pick an epoch. It doesn’t matter. Though not exactly toiling in obscurity, the company lacks the high-profile visibility of a Steppenwolf, Goodman or Lookingglass Theatre. May the opening production of Bumppo’s 18th season “Both Your Houses,” finally put an end to that injustice.
A witty political satire that feels ripped from the headlines with themes of patronage-influenced stagnation and Congressional corruption, playwright Maxwell Anderson’s 1933 script provides the gifted Bummpo cast with more than just an opportunity to look stunning in late-Prohibition Era costumes (kudos to designer Emily Waecker). In press materials, the production is described as capturing “the charm and fervor of the classic film ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,’ and hit television series ‘The West Wing,’ while simultaneously challenging the plausibility of change a la ‘The Daily Show.'”
It’s a credit to Anderson’s work that he’s able to weave whimsy, romance and sharp dialogue into a deadly serious and effective fabric. In a deliberately nonpartisan way, “Both Your Houses” argues that in the first half of the 20th century, one’s vote hardly matters. Either guy (and yes, the candidate is almost certainly a man) is going to bring the same MO to Washington: load up on legislative pork, bring it back home, get re-elected, repeat. Of course everything has changed since then and the American governing process is cleaner, more honest…
Yeah… not so much. If anything, the lobbyist-infested halls of Congress are more inert and cynical than ever. Remy Bumppo’s choice of season opener could be viewed as a present-day civic statement, and the production’s press release doesn’t discourage the interpretation: “[It] will run throughout the lead-up to the 2014 midterm elections, in which 435 seats in the House of Representatives and 22 seats in the Senate will be up for re-election.”
The statement appears to be this: the system is broken. The good guys and the bad are nearly indistinguishable. Sometimes doing what it takes to protect the country looks an awful lot like criminal activity. In other situations, the right action is taken for all the morally worst reasons. But it’s not the officials who protect the status quo. We do. The voting public. And we don’t have to.
And such fun the audience has while receiving a critical warning. The sharp costumes and snappy discourse, a multi-layered plot that includes romantic intrigue and familial piety — all executed with control by Remy Bumppo Artistic Director Emeritus James Bohnen.
Bohnen’s affectionate history with the company is evident in the intimate vulnerability he elicits from the performances of the cast, which includes Artistic Associates David Darlow and Linda Gillum, as well as Ensemble Members Peter A. Davis and Eliza Stoughton. Darlow and Gillum, who both delivered searing, emotional work in Remy Bumppo’s late 17th season triumph, “Our Class,” are back stealing scenes respectively as a battle worn Congressman with a taste for illegal spirits, and a scheming Gal Friday with a sharp tongue.
The characters are drawn somewhat formulaically and a 21st century observer might bemoan the lack of a strong central female. There’s not much diversity to be found here. Blame it on 1933. Be that as it may, the work onstage is faultless.
As sort of a Remy Bumppo and Artistic Associate Greg Matthew Anderson superfan, I initially took the latter’s absence from the cast list rather hard. But the company’s talent roster is such that the disappointment couldn’t last. I settled for a press opening glimpse of Anderson in the crowd, and enjoyed another satisfying synthesis of intelligent subject matter, historical perspective and winning performances from the dependably entertaining Remy Bummpo.